Saturday, September 29, 2012

Saturday Short Subjects: Butterfly Town, USA

When we chose Pacific Grove as our base for a 5-day stay in the Monterey Bay area, we were familiar with its beautiful coast and its proximity to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Pebble Beach. We did not know that Pacific Grove was founded as a Methodist summer retreat in 1875 and that so many of its original buildings are still in use today. According to a handout from the Pacific Grove information booth, nearly 1/4 of Pacific Grove’s structures are designated “historic.” We were also ignorant of the wide range of affordable eateries located within the immaculately kept downtown. 

And we certainly had no idea we would be staying in “Butterfly Town, USA.” Each winter, Pacific Grove is home to some 25,000 monarch butterflies. The monarch butterfly (Danaus plecippus) has a range extending north to Canada. It cannot withstand freezing temperatures and must seek a warmer climate for the winter months. We were well acquainted with the migration the east coast monarchs make to central Mexico. We did not know that the monarchs west of the Rockies migrate to California’s Central Coast where they gather in groves of eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and Monterey cypress, huddled in clusters for warmth. While their journey does not encompass as many miles as the eastern migration, it is still impressive. 

Postcard photo by Richard Bucich

The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History has a wealth of information on these amazing creatures. Citizens of Pacific Grove take their role as protectors of the monarch very seriously; they voted to create an additional tax to create the Monarch Grove Sanctuary, led by dedicated volunteers. The Pacific Grove Police Department continues to enforce strict regulations that prohibit the "molestation of butterflies." The fine? $1,000. The town marks the return of the monarchs with an annual parade and celebration in early October.

Did you know that the butterflies who migrate in the fall are not the same ones who arrived in the spring? You can read more about their amazing life cycle here. Where the monarchs went each autumn was a mystery until Dr. Fred Urquhart, the scientist who invented the butterfly tag, and his wife Nora, learned in 1976 that the eastern monarchs travel to central Mexico.

A new IMAX movie, Flight of the Butterflies, which documents one generation’s migration north and a new generation’s miraculous journey south to Mexico — a place it’s never been — will open in theaters across the country on October 1.

Unfortunately, like so many of our native species, the monarchs are suffering. Citizen scientists in California, with the help of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, have conducted annual Thanksgiving counts of the wintering monarch populations since 1997. The results show alarming declines. As just one example, in 1997, at the Natural Bridges State Park near Santa Cruz, volunteers recorded an estimated 120,000 monarchs; in 2009, only 1,300 butterflies were found. 

Many scientists believe the falling population is tied to the loss of the native milkweed, due to urban and agricultural development, drought, and herbicide use.  Monarch caterpillars feed on milkweed; without adequate sources of this food, monarchs are unable to reproduce. Loss of wintering groves and climate change are also possible contributing factors. Groups including the Xerces Society, the Monarch Joint Venture, and Monarch Watch, are all working on programs to restore the monarchs’ habitats and food supplies. 

How can you help? Across the country individuals and groups are establishing butterfly gardens in their communities. An easy way to get started is with a Monarch Waystation Kit available through Monarch Watch. 

Guess this “short” wasn’t so short after all. 

Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

Why Saturday Short Subjects? Some readers may recall  being dropped at the movie theater for the Saturday matinee — two action-packed feature films with a series of short subjects (cartoons or short movies, sometimes a serial cliffhanger) sandwiched in between. Often the short subjects were the most memorable, and enjoyable, part of the morning. That explains the name. The reason behind these particular posts is that we are all short on time. My Short Subject posts should not take me as long to write or you as long to read (or try).

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